Crashing oil prices and entrepreneurship in the oil sector

What an interesting time to be alive. Oil prices have dropped precipitously over the past 3 months. Down from over $100 to around $61 at the moment. There are various explanations for this. Saudi Arabia is trying to pull the rug out of the fraking boom in the US by reducing the profit margin on expensive production sites in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. I like the super geo-political-diplomatic explanation that the US cut a deal with Saudi Arabia to cut oil prices in order to hurt Russia (it doesn’t sound true, but maybe it is!)

What I’m interested in is how this will affect entrepreneurship in regions whose economies are dependent on oil extraction. For the past year I’ve been conducting a study about technology entrepreneurship in these sorts of regions. Places like Aberdeen in Scotland and St. John’s in Newfoundland. I’ve just returned from 6 weeks of intensive fieldwork in St. Johns, made all the more interesting by the falling oil prices.

These places tend to have very, very high levels of entrepreneurship and self employment. The hugely capital intensive projects associated with sucking oil out of the seafloor brings in lots of money to the region but it also attracts some of the smartest and best trained engineers and scientists in the world to work on these projects. Entrepreneurs are able to find plentiful opportunities in these sorts of markets — many begin by serving the local market as contractors or sub-contractors on big projects before developing a technology that can be exported to other oil service centres. Think new software tools to manage the flow of resources into projects or submersible technologies that can be used to inspect offshore installations anywhere.

It’s hard to figure out what the decline in oil prices mean. In the short term we’re going to see very swift retrenchment by the major operators. They’re going to cancel projects and lay off workers. But developing an on-shore or off-shore oil field is a major investment that’ll most likely be in operation for several decades. You don’t make decisions like that on major, but quick, fluctuations in the price of oil. After all, oil is still a non-renewable resource and it’s still getting burned off like crazy. The price will return to very high levels eventually.

But in the meantime it will do some major damage to entrepreneurs in this sector. The major oil producers are really, really good at externalizing everything that isn’t sucking oil out of the ground and selling it. As far as I can tell with projects in the North Sea, most of the design, development, installation, and maintenance work on offshore rigs are outsourced either to international oil service companies like Haliberton or to smaller local specialized firms. These opportunities will be the first to dry up, the entire point of this system is to be able to quickly drop projects and contractors during periods of cyclical decline. This will not be a fun period for entrepreneurs. Many will fail and others will either see a substantial loss of profits or the need to scour the world for new business.

But I think in the long-term this kind of short term shock can be good for the regions (if not the individual entrepreneurs). The economies of resource regions are tied to the fate of a highly variable commodity whose use will hopefully decline over the next 50 years. Anything that pushes firms to move beyond the oil and gas industry is a good long-term move. For example, I can see lots of maritime engineering firms and subsea technology companies in Aberdeen shift to offshore wind development. These installations require really advanced work to be build and maintained in one of the world’s harshest environments. However, the payment for working on these projects is far lower than what they would expect to get for oil projects. When times are good these firms wouldn’t have the resources to take on a project like wind power but in leaner times they just might. And by doing this they develop capabilities that can be exported around the world, helping the firm survive and reducing their dependence on the oil industry.

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